NASA robot detects complex organic matter on Mars in 'significant breakthrough'

NASA news conference Mars announcement

NASA news conference Mars announcement

That doesn't mean they've found life, but it's a good indication Mars could have sustained life in the past. "We can find organic matter preserved in mudstones that are more than three billion years old", Siebach said.

The search for life on Mars over the past half century has been an exercise in lowering the bar combined with ever more sophisticated ways of seeking clues. "I work with an incredible group of people on Mars, and we have discovered so much".

The material was found after the rover drilled into the surface of a 3.5 billion-year-old mudstone at the bottom of the Gale crater.

Arriving at Mars in 2012 with a drill and its own onboard labs, Curiosity confirmed the presence of organics in rocks in 2013, but the molecules weren't exactly what scientists expected.

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A reminder: Organic molecules aren't necessarily produced by organisms; they're just chemical compounds that contain carbon. "Organic matter" includes a whole host of compounds with carbon atoms in them.

"Are there signs of life on Mars?" asked Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters.

"Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules", said Jen Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Spikes and plumes of methane in Mars's thin atmosphere have been detected by several missions over more than two decades, but they have been frustrating to study, said Christopher Webster, who led the methane study. In a second paper, a group of scientists described methane in the atmosphere of the red planet has been varying.

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Methane is a strong greenhouse gas, and it could have supported a climate that sustained lakes on Mars. "It's an astounding observation". Mars doesn't recycle its rock the way that Earth does-maybe its ancient dust can teach us a thing or two about our own planet's history, said Siebach. "So way under the ground this methane is trapped".

But what's making the methane? About 3.5 billion years ago, research suggests, this pockmark on the Martian surface was brimming with water. "Or is it something that is stored from an ancient time that's being slowly released?" Together, the researchers believe these findings to be "breakthroughs in astrobiology". "It's not cold and dead-it's perhaps hovering right on the edge of habitability". Over time, a picture of the ebb and flow of methane on Mars has emerged.

We should point out here that NASA press conferences are always hyped to the skies by UFO fans - then it turns out to be something important, but not alien-related. "It had the ability to support life-but doesn't mean life were there". And if life does exist elsewhere, it may be very different or even form differently from how we understand life on Earth.

"Are there signs of life on Mars?" The surge in methane seems to fade as quickly as it appears, indicating there's not just a variable source, but a methane sink as well.

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The fluctuations in methane were observed over three Mars years (roughly six Earth years) by Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments. After drilling, Curiosity heats the rock samples, releasing the compounds. The Insight and ExoMars missions will teach scientists more about the planet's geology and methane. Earth-based telescopes, spacecraft orbiting Mars and now Curiosity, have measured episodic sudden increases in the background methane content.

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